Part 14: The West, the wildfires and … remission?

For most of the summer of 2021, I have ben traveling the western states. After my brother and I explored Yosemite (see my last post), I spent a couple of weeks in San Diego, hanging out at the local campgrounds, in Ocean Beach, and getting medical tests done. After it was all over, Dr. Vlad told me I was in remission (!), which was a complete shock … I still don’t know how I can go from literally being told I was about to die (and feeling like it as well), to being told there are no signs or symptoms of disease. On one hand, I am ecstatic, and on the other, I don’t want to get too cocky about it, since six months before my back was broken, they were telling me that all of my tests looked great then too. It simply never occurred to me that I would be in remission (or that it was even a possibility), so I can’t say it was a mission.

But hell, yeah, let’s say mission accomplished! Every day is a triumph in this crazy world, and cancer makes it even worse. Any measure of success? I’ll take it.

So… great. I still have cancer, but it’s just not breaking my bones anymore. That’s definitely a plus. But … now what? I gave up most of my stuff. My furbaby lives with my brother. I dumped my boyfriend in California. I live in an RV. I don’t have a home anymore.

Not dying anymore is a great problem to have, but it’s the second time in two years that I have gotten life-changing news. I don’t know how many more of these I can do.

Anyway, after all of the tests and exams and MRIs and medical stuff was done in San Diego, I spent a few more days in southern California.

I went all around: a night in the desert in Murrieta…

… brunch in Long Beach…

… a couple of nights in Ventura with my brother and his family (and my sweet Janis kitty!), and camping at Malibu Creek state park.

It’s a really cute park, and it has some fantastic views, even from my campsite/camper door.

They used to film movies here!

The heat wave started when I was camping with no hookups in Los Angeles county. Luckily I was in a canyon, so I managed to avoid the worst of the heat that week.

The next week, I was in Lee Vining — in the Sierra mountain range near the east entrance to Yosemite.

My stepbrother and that whole side of the family camps there on Fourth of July week every year, and this was my first time hanging with them over the holiday (as you may know, my 4th of July BBQs on the beach in OB were epic).

It was hot up there, but thankfully not as smoky as it got to be later in the month.

My nephews washed Dolly for me (sort of), and we had a great time. We waded in the creek, we grilled tasty snacks, and we saw a bear.

It was a lovely area, even from my stepbrother’s camper (which tries, but of course isn’t as nice as Dolly). We also enjoyed a lovely Fourth fireworks celebration with Indian fry bread tacos and sparklers for the kids.

And my nephew, who is totally adorable … well, he just gets cuter …

After returning to sea level (that always feels so great after time in the mountains, especially when it’s hot, both for me and for Dolly), I spent a night in Lodi wine country …

… and then in the Bay Area …

… both at amazing Harvest Host wineries and breweries. I highly recommend the Ale Industries Brewery in Oakland — you know, a lot of Harvest Hosts people talk smack about urban Hosts (i.e., in cities, as opposed to farms or wineries in the middle of nowhere) because you have to park in parking lots, but personally, I don’t mind. As long as the area is safe I am OK camping there.

I stayed at Ale Industries in Oakland, and I highly recommend their IPA!

Also, I loved being in the Bay Area, even if it was “just” the east bay. The heat and smoke from the many wildfires sparking up everywhere were the mildest on the coast.

I headed further north and stayed at a Harvest Host Winery in the Redwood Valley …

The heat really started to get nasty as I made it north to Santa Ana and stayed overnight at Testa Vineyards in the Redwood Valley. It was 99 degrees while I was sipping my requisite tasters.

It cracked 105 degrees when I was in Humboldt county. I think this was right around the time that the fires in northern California and southern Oregon started to get really bad.

I had reservations at the Red Bluff campground in Mendocino county, but it was another campsite without hookups.

I had managed in Malibu Creek when it was in the 90s, but that day was topping out at 115 and it was a bit too much. My sister offered to put me up in a motel for the night … and just this once, I caved.

This definitely was great – I got to charge all of my devices, have WiFi and cable at the same time, and god knows, I enjoyed that air conditioning – but staying in a motel when it got too hot is not a trend I wanted to start.

I really was excited to see the Redwoods, but the heat was almost unbearable by the time I got there. I traveled through Humboldt county and the Avenue of the Giants, which is just breathtakingly beautiful. The fresh oxygen and cool shade provided by these giants was the only saving grace for the heat during those couple of days.

I had some pleasant surprises, too … People think (or at least, I thought) of “the redwoods” as a single state or national park.

In reality, everything in that part of California is either a state park, a national park, a county park, a conservancy, a wildlife refuge, or a public space of some sort -interspersed with tiny towns and farms and communities in between.

I was there for a few days and I barely saw a fraction of it. I felt sad that I didn’t get to see it in better times.

This feeling – wishing I was there during a less hot and smoky time, and hoping to be able to come back again soon -was a recurring theme for the next several weeks.

Luckily, now that I am in remission, I don’t feel as much like I am on such a severe time crunch. Instead of doing a whirlwind tour of the east coast in 14 days, or hauling ass through wildfires to see the area … well. It’s nice to have more time.

I stayed at a Boondocker’s Welcome host again, two days in the middle of several state and local parks. It was a home with a lovely English garden.

It was also a little bit rainy because I was at sorta low elevation, so that was very welcome indeed. I even gave Dolly a little break and took the bus into Eureka to look around and do some shopping.

I spent a couple of lovely nights in the redwood area, then a very hot night at the foot of Mount Shasta, where the (city of) Weed fire started to get out of hand.

I was in a prime spot for a lovely view but could barely even see that the mountain was there.

I camped that night at the Mt. Shasta Brewing Company, which has great beer and pretzels. As a Harvest Host, they pretty much only need to give you a parking spot, but due to the extreme heat, they were kind enough to let me (pay to) plug in and run my air conditioner overnight. I have a small generator (not the camper one, but it plugs in to recharge and works very well), so I can run a fan; but when it’s over 100 degrees and the whole area is on fire, something stronger is necessary.

After I got to Oregon, the wildfires had basically created their own weather system, so I had to call an audible. I decided to change some of my reservations and stay closer to the coast.

It was definitely the best decision – I went straight west to Tillamook, where I enjoyed fresh oysters on the half-shell…

… and a walk around their adorable downtown.

I had no idea that the Tillamook area was as famous for seafood, especially oysters, as it is for cheese. They have a bunch of little oyster farms everywhere, and the fresh ones are just delicious. The local oyster bar I found was just lovely.

I also did a self-guided tour of the Tillamook cheese factory, …

… where they had some amazing ice cream and cheese dishes …

… definitely try the deep fried cheese curds (with the cheddar ranch dipping sauce) if you ever find yourself around there.

Tillamook was one if my favorite parts of this trip.

I camped out at the Blue Heron cheese factory (along with every other RV on the west coast), I ate a rack of oysters that had just been in the water that morning, I sat on the cow bench in Tillamook, and I ate some of — well, everything at the Tillamook factory.

As I made my way north, I stopped in the coastal towns of Seaside and Astoria, and camped at a Harvest Host in southwestern Washington that’s a lavender farm.

I can’t even describe how fresh and clean it all felt … the sea air and the pine trees and the lavender fields … especially after all of that heat and smoke.

It was even chilly! I needed a hat!

Then I stayed in two different spots near Seattle …

… first on the western shore facing east…

… and then on Anacortes Island, near Deception Pass.

I have good friends on Anacortes island and some distant stepfamily members nearby, so I got to have a nice dinner with family, then a nice evening with my old friends, tasting local beer and eating pizza.

I told them about the amazing oysters I tried in Tillamook, so they hooked me up with some amazing local oysters and showed me how to open them and eat them properly!

The whole area around the islands and Deception Pass is really amazingly beautiful.

My friends are biologists and know all of the amazing spots for hiking, birding crabbing and fishing. I spent a wonderful day exploring the park and the area around it.

I stayed out west as long as I could, and moved a lot of reservations around in order to avoid wildfires. But eventually I had to head east, where I knew the fires – and the heat – were going to get considerably worse.

I was only in Idaho for one night, and in western Montana for a few days. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like I got the best out of Montana. (This photo, below, was about as clear as it got the entire time I was there – and that day it was almost 100 degrees outside. It sucked.)

Hopefully, I will get to go back, because I basically didn’t see the “big sky” the whole time I was there. Total rip-off.

The whole time I was there, I felt like I was walking around in a campfire. Smoke. Heat.

The sky was hazy and gray when I visited the Garden of One Thousand Buddhas.

Most parts of Glacier National Park were too narrow to fit my RV.

Despite the heat and smoke, everything was packed. It was crowded.

I was disappointed.

It wasn’t all bad, though – I did have some tasty food – one of the Harvest Hosts I stayed at was the East Shore Smokehouse, a great little old-school hunting lodge remade as a new age restaurant. They had this amazing appetizer dish called “Montana hot ends,” which are pork rib tips, smoked and braised and tossed in chili and brown sugar, and served with slaw and ranch dressing.

It’s unlike anything you’ve ever had before.

And then, my chemo drug started to give me problems. I am taking an oral chemotherapy pill, so the side effects aren’t (normally) as bad as the infusions. Most of the time I have a little nausea and a slight headache from these drugs, but that week, perhaps as a result of all of the coughing I was doing due to the wildfires and smoke – I was super nauseated. Most Harvest Hosts don’t let you plug into electricity or water, but one in Montana thankfully allowed it, so I hung out for two days enjoying air conditioning and not driving or doing anything else. It was just what I needed.

The last night I was in western Montana was the calm before the storm I was camping at a brewery – Big Sky Brewing in Missoula – which had a great atmosphere, ridiculously cheap beer, and very nice people.

It was also almost 100 degrees, plus smoke and fire and smog.

I tried to make the best of everything, but the heat was really starring to get to me.

One day … well, it was the worst day. I had a lot of driving to do – nearly six hours according to Google, which always ends up being more in an RV – and I felt sick as soon as I woke up. I tried to fight through it, but in the middle of the morning I threw up (luckily into one of my handy barf bags). It was actually kind of impressive the way I did it while driving. Not an hour later, traffic started to tighten up – an accident had literally just taken place, and I passed emergency vehicles arriving at a gruesome scene. The poor driver had crossed multiple lanes of traffic and hit a hillside; and he was hanging out of his window – either dead or extremely injured – right when I passed. It was terrible.

About an hour after that, the weather was starting to get into the high 90s. I got a call from my friend Jen, who had flown from San Diego into Billings, Montana. We had decided to meet there (hence my long day of driving) to travel through the Dakotas, and then I would drop her off in Minnesota, where she would visit her family and fly back home to San Diego. I was super excited to meet with her, even if it was a long day of driving to get there. I was maybe an hour or two away when she calls me to tell me she landed, and she was headed to a cafe to wait for me. I was coasting down a hill, playing a political audiobook.

Then the engine died. The “check engine” light came on, the gas pedal stopped working, and the brakes felt a little wonky too, since I was headed down a 7% grade with a half-full black tank. It was terrifying. I thought I was going to end up like that poor man I had just seen on the side of the road in that awful accident. I managed to get the RV to stop, and after a lot of back-and-forth with everyone who had an idea about what it might be, I got towed to the nearest repair shop.

It was around 4 p.m. at that point, so they did their best that evening, but by the time the shop closed, they still had no idea what was wrong with the engine. The engine would start up briefly, run noisily for a minute or two, then shake and die. The check engine light wouldn’t flash, and Dolly is a 1996, so the mechanics couldn’t hook it up to their code readers.

Even though they couldn’t figure it out, they let me camp there overnight. Jen was safe in a cool “dude ranch” motel in Billings, while I was plugged in with my a/c blasting in the middle of a repair yard in Livingston. We were both stuck for two nights, but as a stroke of major luck, the two nights we were delayed were also two nights that we got to enjoy the air conditioning when it was almost 100 degrees in Montana. If Dolly hadn’t broken down, we would have been sweating our nips off in a brewery in downtown Billings. And it wasn’t just the heat; the air quality was horrible, and it was hard to breathe sometimes.

After two nights in a repair yard, they managed to finally figure it out. and lo and behold it was the same nonsense that had broken Dolly down in Missouri, last November: rodents! Rodent damage to spark plug wires from the time it was in storage (before I bought it) finally got too hot or whatever and gave out. It was a $12 part. It cost me almost $400, since it took them hours of diagnostics, but it was better than a new engine.

Two days late, I finally picked Jen up in Billings, and we got the heck out of Montana as fast as we could … which, in an RV, is not really fast. I basically drove as fast as Dolly would take us all of the way to Williston, North Dakota. It was out of our way to go to the very south part of South Dakota, but my dear friend Belinda was there for work, and I couldn’t be in the Dakotas and not stop in to see her. We drove for almost 10 hours, but she’s the best friend and was waiting for us with hot showers and a hot bowl of her famous albondigas soup. That’s the type of food that puts the blood back in your veins when you’ve had a hard day!

But after all of that driving, luckily we were back on schedule at that point. So instead of a day with Belinda, we had like two hours in the middle of the night, then we had to get up early and get to Roubaix Lake in South Dakota before nightfall.

Roubaix Lake is really great. There aren’t electrical hookups, but the weather and the fires had cooled off (and we had gotten far enough east) that it wasn’t too hot and uncomfortable outside – it was in the 70s, plus we had a nice lake to jump in if we wanted to.

Of course, we didn’t swim in the lake, because our one full day there was spent in Deadwood and around Mount Rushmore.

Roubaix Lake is about halfway between the Mount Rushmore National Monument and the historic town of Deadwood, which is really cool.

They have an old west shootout in the middle of the street a few times a day, and all of the touristy shops are super cute.

We were in the area about a week before the Sturgis motorcycle rally, so lots of motorcycle riders were starting to congregate.

(But they were preparing for it, so it still looked like “Sons of Anarchy” threw up out there.)

My friend Jen got a tattoo (a lovely purple star, no less) to commemorate our awesome trip together.

I couldn’t join her for a tattoo (even though I would have liked to; it’s a no-no when you’re on chemo), but it was so cool that she got one.

It’s nice that’s it’s to commemorate our fun time instead of some wack “in memoriam” tattoo, too!

After a couple of nights at Roubaix Lake (and a very full day of historic Deadwood and Mount Rushmore), we had another long day of driving, this time as far as we could get into Minnesota. I had to drop Jen off east of Minneapolis in the morning, so we drove all day to get there in time.

We stopped to see the grasslands, and to enjoy lunch at Wall Drug, but most of Jen and I’s time together was spent driving.

Luckily, Dolly is the ultimate luxury vehicle, so we still had a great time. I miss riding around with friends!

Coming soon: Read all about my adventures through the Midwest, including visiting friends in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan; all of the food I ate in Chicago; my college roommate’s wedding; all of the cheese and beer I consumed in Wisconsin; and of course all of the details from Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and my trip back home to San Diego. Belinda is (hopefully) going to join me in Wyoming for some national parks explorations, so it should be epic!

Are you enjoying this content? Please support my adventure by donating to my Gofundme here!

Part 11: East Coast Swing

What an incredible time this adventure has been so far! This has been everything I could have hoped for.

After I left my mom’s house in east Tennessee, I went straight north to Virginia.

Of course, barely a week after there had been freezing rain, it was in the high 80s with insane humidity. Southwestern Virginia is really beautiful, although the landscape is pretty much the same as Tennessee.

I visited a cool monument to Booker T. Washington outside of Roanoke…

I visited a cool monument to Booker T. Washington outside of Roanoke, and camped that night at a state park. Smith Mountain Lake State Park is one where locals go to fish and boat all year long, but I was only there for one night. I met a few people, I enjoyed the air conditioning in my RV (that sweltering Virginia humidity is no joke), and when the sun went down I built a campfire.

I have been full-time in my RV since Halloween (except for a couple of weeks at my mom’s house over the holidays), and I have never stayed a single night in an RV park. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen an RV park that looked like a cool place to hang out. Most are full of kids, which I do not care for, and very few are cheaper than a county or state park. Plus, who would you rather give your money to, a parks agency that just got another round of budget cuts, who offers a safe and fun and cool place to camp; or an RV park full of screaming kids? Seems like an easy choice to me.

Other than a few parks and a few friends’ houses, I stayed at a bunch of Harvest Hosts. If you are new to this blog, you may not know about HH … they’re for RV owners; you pay a set annual fee (less than $100 unless you’re premium) and you can stay at several thousand hosts across the country.

Some are wineries (hence the name), some are farms or distilleries or golf courses, and some are just places of interest, like a museum or an inn or a cool store. It is also requested that you support your host by buying whatever they have for sale (a bottle of wine or a tee time, etc.), so you get the extra benefit of supporting a small business in a pandemic as well. My second night in Virginia was at Hubs, a Harvest Host that is a company store for a peanut farm — so as you can imagine, I walked out of there with a few peanuts.

I also feel like I did a great job of sticking with Harvest Hosts that were on-brand for that region. As you’ll see later, I stayed at a dairy farm in Iowa, a cranberry bog in Cape Cod … and in Maryland, I was at a crab restaurant.

Ocean Odyssey was amazing. No frills or anything fancy, but the crab was so flavorful and so well-prepared, I can’t even describe it. I had my crab cake pan-fried (as opposed to deep-fried, upon the recommendation of my server), which was almost all crab meat and spices, very little breading, and served with an array of sauces, including an impeccable homemade tartar sauce. I also got a cheesy crab dip.

And although it was rainy and windy that night, it was a really nice evening.

(I try to take a picture of my view from my camper door from most, if not all, of the places I stay.) The eastern shore is really amazing in terms of beauty, wildlife, and history. Within walking distance of my camping spot at Ocean Odyssey is a river port with a visitor’s center, artwork and murals, and beautiful views.

The eastern shore is also where Harriet Tubman lived and helped rescue thousands from slavery. There is a really cool museum and learning center nearby. I really wanted to get one of these as a hood ornament for Dolly.

I also thought the Chesapeake Bay was super cool … I didn’t realize before that the bay was crossed by not a tunnel or a bridge but a series of bridges and tunnels that span dozens of miles over sandy beaches and the deep bay between Virginia and Maryland.

It was a really interesting drive that day, especially. Next time I do this trip, I am taking someone else with me (and washing my damn windows) so we can get a lot of (much better) photos.

I got my first Covid vaccine shot in April in San Diego, and I was eligible for my booster when I was going through the DC area, so I left Maryland early the next morning, I got my booster shot, and went to my next Harvest Host. I wanted to spend some time in Washington DC, so I picked Port City Brewing in Alexandria, Virginia, which is actually accessible to downtown DC by subway. I planned to take an Uber into town and either take the Metro back or meet some friends.

It turned out, I did all of those things! After I parked Dolly at the brewery, I took an Uber to the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl, where I had an awesome half-smoke and some fries.

Then I took the Metro to the Smithsonian, because it was a gorgeous spring day and I had never seen the new MLK statue (the last time I was in DC was for a college internship in 1999). I think everyone in the DC area had the same brilliant idea as I did, since people were starting to get vaccinated, things were starting to open up on a limited basis, and it was just a fantastically gorgeous day.

I was really glad I carbed up at Ben’s, because I did a lot of walking that day around the Washington Monument and the mall.

I got to check a couple more national monuments and parks off of my list that day as well, so I think I earned this new sticker.

I also met up with a friend (she’s actually a sister-in-law of another friend, but we had only met online previously), and then ANOTHER friend from high school (who I literally had not seen since graduation) picked me up and took me back to the brewery where I was camping; so I was able to relax with her and have a couple of beers while we caught up.

I would say that it was an extremely eventful day, but most of my days on the east coast were similarly packed.

The next day I was off to Delaware, staying at another Harvest Host brewery called Midnight Oil Brewing.

This one had kombucha as well as beer, which I appreciated, and it wasn’t as crazy packed as the one in Alexandria had been. I even ordered some local Chinese food that was pretty awesome.

You know I will always find a way to eat well, even when traveling, but it’s hard sometimes to get good ethnic food on the road. I can always pretty much assume that pizza, BBQ, burgers, fried chicken, etc., will always be good if you go to a good restaurant; but Mexican, Thai, Indian, Chinese – anything ethnic – it’s best to get it on recommendation from a local instead of winging it.

Speaking of food …

The next day I was in Jersey, seeing my dear friend Nichelina for the first time since we got back from Dolly’s maiden voyage back in December. I parked at her house in Ocean City, New Jersey, and she took me to all the places and we ate all of the things.

But first, I went by myself to the Ocean City boardwalk. And it was abandoned.

Almost every shop closed. Almost no people.

I’ve never seen anything before in my life like a beach town that is closed for the season. This isn’t a thing we have on the west coast. I got myself a frozen custard (which was delish) and some souvenirs (because of course those stores were open, haha), and took a walk on the boardwalk, but it felt weird.

The next day, Nichelina took me to Philadelphia, so I was able to have the most incredible foodie day! Our first stop was the Reading Terminal Market, where they have tiny little booths of craft and artisanal foods. I got some Amish goat cheese and duck pate, as well as some fancy chocolate.

Because Nichelina drives like a crazy person, I got a literal whirlwind tour of Philly. I flew past the Love statue, the courthouse and the Liberty Bell. I managed to jump out of the car for thirty seconds or so to take a selfie in front of the Rocky statue.

Luckily they moved the Rocky statue so you don’t have to climb a bunch of stairs to get to it. I definitely would not have had time!

You may or may not know about the Cheesesteak Corner in Philly. It’s literally a street corner where two competing cheesesteak joints have been rivals for decades. Everyone in Philly has an opinion about Pat’s vs. Geno’s. Being a west coast girl, I did not have an opinion, but Nichelina insisted (in a characteristically quasi-violent way) that we were going to Pat’s or nothing.

So we went to Pat’s.

And I’m not mad about it; it was incredible. I learned how to order it properly so I didn’t look stupid, and it was delicious.

Next, we went to Termini Brothers, a century-old bakery known for handmade cannoli and other sweets. I got a cool video of the expert cannoli-stuffer filling it with one of three tasty fillings:

I was also told (by another friend from PA) to go to John’s for a roast pork sandwich, but John’s was closed due to being out of bread. I almost witnessed some acts of violence by other patrons when they realized they couldn’t get a sandwich, but Nichelina suggested that we go to Tony Luke’s instead for a roast pork. It was really amazing. The bread was soft and chewy, the pork was super tender and spicy, and the cheese was the perfect topper.

Then, because I guess we hadn’t eaten enough, we stopped for a slice at Lorenzo’s on the way out of Philly.

Even splitting everything halfway with Nichelina, I was more stuffed than I have ever been in my life. It was a rough night.

The next day, we went to Atlantic City, which was also closed for the season (it wasn’t quite Mother’s Day yet). I still think it’s weird and kinda eerie to be in a beach town – one with gambling and entertainment, no less – that is mostly closed and almost totally abandoned except for hardcore gamblers and locals.

I guess since it’s off-season they felt Ok about treating us like crap at the restaurant … the Gordon Ramsay spot inside of Caesar’s Palace was pretty much empty and the Buffalo Cauliflower was rad, but the service was just awful. It’s the first time I haven’t tipped over 20% since the pandemic started. It was especially a disappointment after hearing good things about the spot.

Most of New Jersey is wooded and then it’s the beach. Frankly, if you didn’t know Jersey was a blue state, you’d swear you were in the South – there are absurd liquor laws, weird one-way roads, and some rural homes that would be similar to ones found in Mississippi or Louisiana.

I got to meet up with two different friends of mine from college, to show them around Dolly and catch up for a few minutes. This lady was my editor on the student newspaper in college for two years and we haven’t seen each other for at least 3 years.

Seeing old friends – some for the first time in decades – has been one of the best parts of this adventure. And they love seeing Dolly!

Next, I went north to Long Island, but from Jersey I had to go through New York City. This would not have been as strange or anxiety-producing or crazy if I had been in a normal-sized car, but NYC has a lot of bridges that are old and cross over major expressways, so for example if your vehicle is over 10 feet in height, you can’t go down certain streets. Dolly is about 11 feet and 5-6 inches, so I go with 11’7″ to be safe.

Of course, they can’t just have a sign that says a low bridge is ahead, that would be too easy. I saw a flashing sign on the side of the road that said “you are over height, exit now.” This was the third or fourth time I had had to jump off of the expressway, and rush hour in New York isn’t the best time to do that. So I ended up pulling over and downloading a new app specifically for RVs and trucks so I could take a route that didn’t knock Dolly’s block off.

Between a new route and all of the stops, my three-hour drive became almost 7, so I was glad for a quiet parking lot outside of a bagel shop that night. The Bagel Cafe was another Harvest Host, and one I thought would be cool for the full Long Island experience.

As I said, it seemed like the landscape didn’t change much from Tennessee all the way up through the eastern shore and Virginia to Jersey. All the trees and highways look the same until you’re at the shore. The architecture changes a lot, though … you go quickly from the Appalachian-style brick farmhouses to the clapboard, New England-style farmhouses.

Then, when you really get to New England, everything looks different.

I stuck to the expressways, mostly because they were the only roads recommended by my new driving app. I’m pretty sure all of the other roads had too many low bridges and quaint little hairpin turns for my RV to pass over safely, so it told me to stay on the big, main roads. The only weird thing about that is, at least in the spring, you can drive down the expressway and all you see on the side of the road are trees. Tons of trees. Every color. Some bare ones but just miles and miles of trees. And there are signs on the road telling you that there are restaurants and hotels and gas stations and cities if you exit here, but you can’t see any of it from the road. It’s pretty surreal.

Then, you’ll be driving down the road enjoying all of the various shades of all of these trees and gardens and farms, and all of a sudden, BOOM. PINK. Dogwoods in bloom in every shade of pink, including some I had previously thought couldnt occur in nature. It was really magnificent. I am so glad I managed to pick the perfect time to be on the east coast – not too crowded, not too hot, not too cold. Next time I just need to spend more time there.

I have a few friends in Massachusetts and Rhode Island – two states, which, let’s face it, should just be the same damn state. I will never again be impressed when someone refers to anything as “the size of Rhode Island,” because it is very, very small. I am used to living in a big state, which means when you say something like “I am crossing state lines,” it means something. In New England everything is so small it makes it seem farther away than it really is. In one day, I drove through Connecticut and Massachusetts, then through Rhode Island and into Massachusetts again. And I barely drove three hours. It takes some getting used to.

I visited Cape Cod, which was really beautiful.

I had a lobster roll and camped at a Harvest Host that’s an actual cranberry bog, so I definitely got the full immersive experience. The bog wasn’t blooming any berries at the time, but as you can see the weather was perfect.

I got to stop the next night to see some friends in Easthampton – we used to be neighbors in Ocean Beach and now they’re married with a 7-year-old kid, so it was a really great visit.

After a fun night, we went to a beautifully fragrant apple and peach orchard/ sculpture garden nearby, which was super awesome …

… then on the way back we spotted some roadside asparagus, so I couldn’t resist. It was some really delicious asparagus, too.

Honor system, side of the road.

Whatta country.

After that I had to head west, but it took a whole day of driving just to get through the Catskills and the Hudson River valley to eastern Pennsylvania.

Normally I don’t drive more than 5 hours if I can help it, but this was just under 6 hours … and it was spectacularly beautiful.

I headed to a Harvest Host called Stone Lake Inn, an adorably quaint winery and inn that’s also used as a wedding venue, etc. The wine was not the best, but the staff was very kind and the scenery was unbeatable.

Pennsylvania is a big state so it took a while to get through it. The next night I was in western Pennsylvania, at a farm near the continental divide. I was given the option of parking near a barn with the other equipment, or at the top of a (kinda muddy) hill where they usually grow sunflowers. I guess you know which one I picked.

I got Dolly’s undercarriage a bit dirty, but had some amazing views all night and the next morning at the top of this hill.

The next day I drove through the rest of Pennsylvania, the tiny sliver of West Virginia (I think it’s like 17 miles) that sticks up in between Ohio and Pennsylvania, and into Ohio.

I made it most of the way through the state, to Miamisburg, aka Star City (read here to find out how it got that cool name), and to a Harvest Host called Star City Brewing.

I really loved this town, and not just because of all the stars.

The people were super friendly, the beer was really good, and there were great restaurants. I parked Dolly at the brewing company and went down the street for some BBQ, then came back for a couple of beers. I met some really fun people (again, the mask mandates were starting to ease as more people go vaccinated, so it was especially cool to be drinking at a bar with people).

Stay tuned for the next leg of this trip, where I make it the rest of the way through the Midwest and western states back to California. There’s a lot more to tell! And don’t forget to follow along on social media!

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Part 10: The Voyage East

After two days in the shop and $2,200, I finally got Dolly back. I was supposed to leave on a Wednesday, and it was really now going to be Friday. But, I got new brakes and new shocks, both of which were sorely needed, and I got it handled before I hit the road, and by a mechanic I trust. If I had left San Diego with my brakes in the state they were in, I wouldn’t have made it far — probably somewhere on a desert mountain. Let’s not think about it.

Anyway, despite the hit to my bank account – I get a disability check and Social Security Disability payments, so I am not destitute, but I was feeling like all of the “cushion” I previously had, had just evaporated – I was super excited to finally hit the road.

Belinda joined me for this leg of the adventure as well, because she was going back to Louisiana. She works for a roofing contractor and travels to where the natural disasters cause the most problems, so she needed to pack up to move out of state. In the meantime, we enjoyed another adventure together!

The day, we drove through the beautiful Los Padres National Forest, and I have to say, Dolly’s new brakes did beautifully on those steep hills and forest mountain roads.

No matter how much I travel through California, I am always amazed at its diversity of beauty. Not just its beauty. The different types of breathtaking beauty. Everywhere.

That first night, we stopped briefly at Sagebrush Annie’s Winery – a Harvest Host restaurant that was already closed.

The host generously allowed us to come after hours, but we didn’t go inside or buy anything. We enjoyed a nice sunset and hit the road early the next day, so we could go to our favorite places in Paso Robles before we left the state.

Belinda, of course, insisted that we go back to the incomparable Il Cortile restaurant, and thank goodness she paid because my wallet was hurting after that brake job. But the only reservation we could get that night was for 8:30 p.m. (way late to eat if we wanted to hit the road to Vegas early in the morning), and we couldn’t get into the tasting room at our favorite winery, Chronic Cellars, so we decided to stay an extra night in Paso. It was lovely and exactly what we needed to steel our spirits for a long drive through the desert and plains for the next several days.

Our first night in Paso Robles was actually spent at a winery in San Miguel, which is just slightly north of Paso. The Four Sisters winery is pretty nice, if you love the whole sweeping vistas and lush vineyards and jaw-dropping views sort of thing.

We simply couldn’t rush drinking here.

So we were nice and buzzed and relaxed when we headed to Il Cortile, where again, just like in February, Belinda and I shared appetizers and a pasta dish and got huge entrees. I wanted the lamb rack, but they were sold out, so I was forced to eat the veal shank (I know right).

But the real star of the meal was the ravioli … it was stuffed with corn, so it almost tasted like a tamale, and the creamy mint sauce was studded with bits of mushrooms and bacon, but somehow the whole dish still felt perfectly light and almost airy. It was incredible.

The next night we went back to Tobin James (where we also parked on the Harvest Host program when we were there in February). They have an enormous lot and they are right off of the highway that goes to Barstow, so it was perfect. After we checked in, we took an Uber to Chronic Cellars and enjoyed a glass of wine and bought some of their incredibly cool merchandise, as well as an enormous amount of wine.

We also were advised to check out the Vines on the Mary Crest, another cool winery that’s literally across the street from Chronic. They had a tasting room that was still open at 4 p.m. (unlike Chronic, who closes early), and all of their wines are named after cool rock songs since the vintner/ co-owner Victor used to be a sound engineer for all of the greats.

We really loved this place, and we looooove Victor and his wife Jennifer. They’re both super friendly and into good music and good wine. I mean, their wine club includes concerts and free CDs! After we enjoyed ourselves and bought a bunch of wine, Victor not only recommended a lovely dinner spot, but he drove us there when the Uber didn’t show up. I don’t know if that’s included in the wine club, but I highly recommend their wines and their family.

The dinner he recommended that night was almost better than the Il Cortile dinner the night before… we went to The Hatch, and had prime rib and this appetizer of smoked mushrooms and cream.

They also have an award-winning cocktail artist who designed all of their signature drinks.

I had an Old Fashioned and it was killer.

So after all of that, as you can imagine, we slept like babies that night and were on the road at 7 a.m. the next morning. We headed towards Vegas and stayed with our friends there (we parked in their apartment’s parking lot), and again left early. It’s a pretty unremarkable drive, so luckily we had some good music to keep us alert.

The next night we were in Page, Arizona, this time we paid $30 to the local Elks club to have an electric and water hookup instead of a Wal-mart, like I stayed in the last time I was in Page. Page is over 100 miles from anything on either side in the Arizona desert near the Utah border, and all of the RV parks and recreational areas are super expensive. The last couple of times I came through, I stayed at the Wal-Mart, but $30 is definitely worth it to charge everything and have some electricity and water.

For the next three days, we basically had to go through the most scenic, yet most desolate, parts of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and west Texas.

Belinda finally got to drive Dolly, because we were basically going for hours and hours, and it’s difficult to drive something that size for more than 5-6 hours at the most. It was nice for me to ride in the back for a while.

We made a brief stop in Colorado at the Four Corners and then headed south to Albuquerque, staying at a truck stop outside of the city. (They’re not fancy, but truck stops are invaluable – there’s 24-hour security and showers, and usually a semi-not-terrible breakfast.)

Then we headed straight east, stopping near Lubbock for some fried chicken livers …

… Seriously, Bush’s Chicken has the best fried chicken livers ever … and then we stayed at another truck stop near Sweetwater, Texas. From there it was just over 5 hours to my sister’s house in Houston, were we enjoyed the weekend before we headed to Louisiana.

My birthday was on April 1, and I celebrated in my (former but always) home of Ocean Beach in San Diego. Since my sister didn’t see me for my birthday, she had her home decorated for my birthday – complete with an amazing s’mores cake from the infamous Red Dessert Dive. I was really surprised … mostly because it was over two weeks past my birthday.

I still ate this amazing cake, though.

And it was great to spend time with my family. I’ve spent more time with my mom, my brother and my sister since I started this adventure than I had for the previous decade. I love being able to see them almost every time I travel.

After a relaxing weekend, Belinda and I drove to Louisiana, where she stayed and I kept going. It was bittersweet: I am so blessed to have friends who are able to join me for these adventures, and I know I’ll travel with her again.

I spent the night at Indian Creek, the awesome and beautiful Louisiana state campground that’s right near Belinda’s house.

It was a peaceful and lovely night by the lake, then I got up early the next morning and decided to get as close to Nashville as I could that day.

I had some friends I needed to swing by and say hello to in Nashville, but other than that I was in kind of a hurry – my mom’s birthday was coming up, and if I really hauled ass I could make it in time for her birthday dinner. I originally promised her I would be back for her birthday, but then I didn’t think I could make that after my repairs and the extra night in Paso Robles; I told her I would be at her house the day after, and of course bring a bunch of cool presents.

But I made really excellent drive time that day -nearly to Nashville by the time it was getting dark – so I decided the next day I would just stop briefly in Nashville and then get to my mom’s for her birthday dinner. And I made it!

As I type this, I am happily relaxing at my mom’s house, enjoying some of the wines I brought back from California and enjoying not driving for a few days.

My mom and my stepdad helped me to fix and organize a few little things in the RV, and tomorrow, I plan to hit the road again.

I am really, really excited about this leg of my journey. Basically, other than a college internship and a trip in high school, both to Washington, DC, I have, like, zero east coast experience. I have a lot of friends there, and a lot of things I would like to see, including another stop in DC, but I have never been. I am super excited about seeing something new. My plan is to head northeast from my mom’s house in east Tennessee, going to the Roanoke, Virginia area. The first night I will probably stay at a Harvest Host nearby and go to the Booker T. Washington monument, then head straight east to Virginia Beach. Then I plan to head north to Alexandria/ Washington DC, then to visit friends in the Philadelphia/ Jersey City area, then to Rhode Island and Massachusetts — then I am turning a sharp left and heading west, because I have to be back in San Diego for a bone scan on June 2. But, I also plan to go west through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and several other states where I also have never visited.

Simply put, everything from when I leave here until I get back to California will be new to me.

And I can’t wait.

Please join me and follow along on social media … this part will be awesome!

Are you enjoying this content? Please support my adventure by donating to my Gofundme here!

Part 9: This is Bat Country

After I got my poor window fixed, I spent a few days camping around San Diego. I wanted to do some desert camping in the month of March, before it got super hot or super crowded.

But before we headed to the desert, my brother and sister-in-law took me to the Taste of Boysenberry Festival at Knott’s Berry Farm. I had never been before and my last time at Knott’s was when I was like nine years old … but my big brother and SIL go there all the time (when there isn’t a pandemic). Attendance was limited, pandemic precautions were pretty intense, and all of the rides were closed; the park was open as a food festival only. And it was amazing. The park is a fun place to be no matter what the event is, and all of the food was great.

I was really impressed with their pandemic procedure … everyone had to wear a mask except for when they were actively sitting down and eating food. The rest of the time – walking, ordering, anything else – you had to be masked up. No walking and drinking or eating. Everyone over the age of 2 was in a mask. If you let it slip, they’d remind you to pull it up.

It was also super fun to hang out with my brother and sister-in-law … they’ve only recently come into my life, but we have a really fun and loving relationship, and I am so thankful for it. Plus, he’s a theme park blogger (check out Park Journey) and knew everyone at Knott’s. It was much better going there when it was limited in numbers and I was with someone who knew their way around.

And yes, I bought him that super cool shirt.

The food was really amazing as well. There were a few dishes that were really good, a few that were OK, and a couple of special dishes, like the bao bun with boysenberry kimchi, that slapped so hard I want them to sell me that kimchi in a jar. Or a 5-gallon bucket.

The next week, Belinda and I went to Lake Cahuilla, which is a man-made lake just outside of Palm Desert, and a Riverside county park that offers primitive and hook-up RV camping. (For the uninitiated, “full hookup” usually refers to electricity, water and sewer hookup at the campsite itself. Most of the ones that offer “partial hookups” only refer to the electricity and water, but those campgrounds invariably have a sewer dump you can use, just not at your actual site. Primitive is no hookups at all.) We had partial hookups and a dump station on site. We stayed there for five days, and it was super windy for a couple of those days, so we didn’t spend as much time outside of the RV as I had planned.

Lake Cahuilla is technically in the desert, but it’s in almost a canyon … totally surrounded by mountains. So when the wind blows, it’s pretty intense, but when it’s calm, it’s very nice and peaceful. We just had to do most of our cooking inside the RV, or if we did it on the campfire, the food was totally covered to protect it from dust storms.

But it’s a really beautiful place; and you can fish in the lake, hike in the surrounding mountains, or golf or shop in nearby Palm Desert. We opted to chill at the lake … we walked around a but but due to the wind, we mostly stayed indoors.

Of course, because it was Belinda and I, and because we had to be indoor-sy for the week, we ate really, really well. One day we grilled some kama (yellowtail collar, the most tender and delectable part of the fish) and made a beautiful salad, and washed it down with this lovely chilled rose from one of the wine tasting ventures we went on while traveling around California last month.

We also made some polenta cakes with a homemade “Sunday gravy” I was given as a gift, and paired it with the Big Ricardo red blend from Chronic Cellars.

We’re really getting the hang of this wine pairing thing!

I also forgot to mention that I got some amazing boysenberry mustard when I was at that Boysenberry Festival. Over the past month I have used it on so many things … as part of a dip for grilled artichokes, in a potato salad and multiple sandwiches, we coated some steaks in it before we grilled them, …

… and on a really epic homemade chicken salad. I will post the recipes soon (really because I need to get another jar to make a few more recipes from it).

I even got in a little bit of a spa day before the wind picked up again. Isn’t it lovely out there? I can’t wait to come back.

The next week, Belinda went to celebrate her sister’s birthday with her family in Big Bear. After my previous accidental snow driving, I did not want to go. Plus I had reservations at the Salton Sea state recreation area, which is another great desert camping spot. I was there by myself, but it was really lovely and peaceful.

Salton Sea is a very unique place with a lot of history … back in the 30s, it was a military test site. In the 50s and 60s, it was a vacation getaway known as the “California Riviera,” with more annual tourists than Yosemite. Then in the 70s and 80s, it all started going to hell. The sea dried up and became increasingly polluted, and everyone who lived there left.

I was spending a few days at the state park, which is on the northeastern end of the sea. I can see how this was such a tourism draw back in the day when it was clean and lush … from the eastern shore, you can see spectacular sunsets over the western mountains. But then every few years there is a huge die-off of fish, and the whole sea (some 40 miles wide and almost 60 long), which produces a smell and a sight like you can’t imagine.

I couldn’t live there, but I sure enjoyed a few days checking it out.

In a way it’s unfortunate that the Salton Sea has had such a bad rap, but I was happy to take advantage of a nearly empty state park. I made a really awesome untrimmed tri-tip (it was windy at the Salton Sea as well, but not the entire time like when we were at Lake Cahuilla), and it was several meals for me (especially since I was by myself).

After a couple of meals full of steak and potatoes (the best campfire side dish, in my opinion), I made garlic bread and tri-tip, tri-tip and eggs for breakfast, tri-tip salad for lunch, tri-tip nachos, and more.

Then, I was really tired of eating tri-tip.

I had a couple more weeks to kill in San Diego – Belinda’s mom had surgery at the end of March, so she committed to at least two weeks of being at home to help care for her post-surgery. We tentatively planned to leave on the 7th of April. That left me more time for more desert camping, and a bit of beach fun around my birthday on April 1. But first, I went back to one of my favorite places to camp in San Diego county: Sweetwater Regional Park in Bonita.

It’s really a beautiful and peaceful campground. It’s near the freeway so you are close to civilization, but it’s quiet and mellow and there are gorgeous sunset views.

That week, I also got to go sailing! My friend has a membership in a cool sailing club where you can basically use a boat for as long as you like, and they handle all of the maintenance, etc. We had a lovely time sailing around Coronado Island and the San Diego Bay. And it was perfect weather.

I was also really happy to get a new discount pass: both the national parks and the California state parks systems have a free (or super-cheap) lifetime pass for people with permanent disabilities. I’m really excited to have free access and super cheap camping at parks now!

Before the end of March, we did one more desert camping spot: Agua Caliente is a San Diego county regional park, but it’s inside Anza Borrego state park. All of the state park campgrounds were primitive only, so we opted for a county park spot. It was a full moon that weekend and the skies were incredible.

There were no lights other than campfires and campers, but it looked like there was a street lamp on, it was so bright. I have a pretty good camera on my phone, but my apologies because even my good camera doesn’t do justice to how pretty it was.

My brother and SIL joined Belinda and I for the first day there, and we had a blast hiking, taking mineral showers, and cooking up some deliciousness on the wood fire. I have gotten really good at building a campfire, and I had a lot of experience with a grill and smoker before so it’s a great time adjusting those techniques and recipes for a campfire.

One of my goals for this trip was to spend my birthday on the beach, and I was successful in that, at least. I parked for a few days on the street in Ocean Beach, moving my space during the day when the parking was easier, and hanging out with friends in the evening. I met people for happy hours and brunches and lunches and kombuchas in various rooftop bars and patios and outdoor seating areas. It was a few days of lots of drinking and eating and celebration, and it was wonderful. I won’t rehash all of the amazing food I ate all over again, but check out my Insagram for some awesome photos and videos (check out the video of me dipping a birria taco)!

Before I left town, however, I wanted to check out one more of the San Diego county parks. I think I have mentioned it before, but I was really impressed with the county parks. They have a great reservation system, they’re clean and the staff is friendly, and they’re always just good places to be with relaxed vibes. Travel can be stressful sometimes, and it’s nice to have peaceful places to camp. I mean, a truck stop parking lot will do if you just need a place to get some sleep, but if you’re gonna camp, you want it to be nice, you know?

So the last park on my list in San Diego was Guajome Lake park, which is technically in the city of Oceanside, but is also in the mountains with a lake. It had lovely birds and wildlife, and pretty trails for hiking and biking. Like Agua Caliente, it also has cabins for rent close to the RV and tent camping sites, so I think in June I might camp here again with my brother and his family (they would be in a cabin).

All of this desert fun has also done a number on my brakes; when I got back from the Salton Sea my wheel well was making a weird grinding sound. I wasn’t able to see my mechanic for another week so I kept driving. The brakes still seemed fine up until this past week, when I was driving from Sweetwater to a new campsite at Guajome. As I braked, the wheels made a horrible noise. I gingerly and slowly applied the brake again, and it made a worse sound, and shook the whole vehicle as it finally came to a stop. As I pulled into my campsite, I noticed fluid (presumably brake fluid) leaking from my wheel well.

(Photo credit: my sister-in-law Kristi Condon)

After that, I was too freaked out to drive Dolly to my mechanic … I was already planning to see him about an issue with my tail lights, but I didn’t want to risk my brakes completely failing so I called a tow truck. After a terrible ride (the driver wouldn’t wear a mask, and totally damaged my trailer hitch getting Dolly on and off the truck), my mechanic confirmed my worst fears: it was bad.

My brakes were completely shot. Since I don’t have any of the service records for my RV (the previous owner literally stole them out of the RV after he sold it to me), for all I know, the brakes on there are the originals. I know the shocks are the originals. Bernie (my mechanic) showed me how the front rotors were completely destroyed; one was cracked and the other was worn down to a sliver. The back drums weren’t much better and the shocks were old and frayed. Basically everything needs to be replaced. And the electrician had to rewire my whole trailer to get my back lights to work.

As I write this, my RV is still in the shop, and will hopefully be ready tomorrow, and we can hit the road the next day. It will likely cost about $2,000 total for all of the repairs, which is basically all of my money, but I feel much better knowing that it will all be fixed. I’m lucky that I have a trusted mechanic here, instead of finding out when I’m in the middle of nowhere that my brakes or my lights don’t work. It would cost me considerably more. I’m also blessed that I didn’t find out about my brakes by getting into an accident, although that last trip was kinda sketchy. This is lame but it was the best possible outcome.

I’ll be on the road in a couple of days and headed east. I plan to go through Vegas, the desert, Houston and Louisiana, then to my mom’s house in east Tennessee for a few days before I see the east coast. This is the part I am really excited about! Basically other than a school trip and a college internship in Washington, D.C., I pretty much have no experience on the east coast. I don’t have to be back in San Diego again until the first of June, so I plan to see some things and some people on the Atlantic coast before I head west again. I’m looking forward to finally checking more states off of my map!

I can’t wait to see more of our beautiful country, and to share it with you. Stay tuned for my next adventure!

Please donate to my GoFundMe to assist with repairs, of you are able!

Part 3: Dolly’s Maiden Voyage

As I write this, we have been on the road for almost a month, and we have all held up surprisingly well. When I say “we,” I am referring obviously to myself, but also to my friend, Nichelina, who drove to my mom’s house in Tennessee from her home in Philadephia in order to join me on a nationwide road trip of indeterminate length, and her 11-year-old service pitbull named Dego.

We were all good friends before this trip, but it is fair to say that we have learned a lot about each other after traveling together for so long in a 22-foot-long RV.

Dego has been a very good boy, and mostly rests during the day while we’re moving.

At several times in this story, “we” also includes my RV, who I have named Dolly. She also has performed remarkably well for a vehicle built in 1995-1996 and barely driven 50 miles per year. She only stopped working once, and we were able to get that issue fixed (in a way that probably only happens in a sitcom). More on that later.

Of course, we are also traveling during a pandemic, which severely limits the socializing we would normally be doing. Instead of stopping in a strange town and popping down to the local bar or restaurant to meet some people and ask about the fun places to go, we take our food to go, eat it in the RV (she has a nice dining area), and ask the carryout guy or the gas station attendant or the Harvest Hosts host about local places of interest.

Luckily we have an RV that makes us feel safe, at least in terms of Covid protection – no hotels or restaurants necessary. And luckily, we’re good friends.

Our plan was to head generally westward, stopping at cool places along the way, and using Harvest Hosts as much as possible. I’ve explained about HH before, but essentially it is a membership for RV owners; you pay an annual subscription (which is stupid cheap) to be able to park overnight at privately-owned wineries, farms, distilleries, breweries, and other unique places of interest.

You don’t pay the host for parking, but you are expected to purchase something if they are selling (wine at a winery, cheese at a dairy farm, etc.). Most of them are small farms or businesses, many of the owners live on the property as well.

Of course, there are some areas of the country without Harvest Hosts available, so, as RV owners and travelers know, you can also park for free overnight at (almost) any Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Costco, Cracker Barrel, and most Indian casinos and truck stops. Many of these are open 24 hours, but all have 24-hour security.

Anyway, Nichelina arrived at my mom’s house a few days before we left, because we were still fixing it up — a thousand tiny little touches that needed to happen before we got on the road.

Just as an example, we spent an inordinant amount of time fixing the step up into the camper. I wanted the first view you see when you walk in to be a pretty color and something nice, not just the ugly carpet stapled to the wall. We took several days to paint it, prepare the backsplash, and fix the contoured step.

Of course, now that we have been on the road, we have thought of a thousand more things to fix or redo. By the time we get back to Tennessee again, we will have a completely different idea of RV traveling than we did before we started.

The plan was to leave by noon on Halloween. Then it was by 4 p.m.

We finally left my mom’s house at about 8 p.m.

As we went up the hill and out of the driveway, Dolly started to shake and make a wheezing noise between 35 and 45 mph. We had called ahead to a Harvest Host – Bristol Caverns, a privately owned tourist attraction of a cavern tour and museum – and they told us we could come after business hours. It was about an hour from my mom’s; which we did intentionally, in case we forgot something or something else bad happened that first night.

That first night was 26 degrees. That night I learned that the air conditioning unit was not also a heater. That night I learned how to prime the generator and get it to work – and then realized I did not bring a heater. And how did I never notice how loud that generator is? Also the stove pilot light wasn’t working … it felt like it didn’t have gas going to it, but the reader on the tank said it was half full.

We ended up deciding to use the microwave instead of the stove until we can get a propane guy to check it out – somehow there is enough propane to run the refrigerator, which was great, but it was still weird. The weird shaking and wheezing that happened between 35-45 mph was still happening.

Since it was Sunday when we woke up, we weren’t able to visit the Bristol Caverns, so we headed to Mammoth Caves in southern Kentucky.

We called ahead to another Harvest Host — Traveler’s Cellar in Rockfield, Kentucky. They were having a private party that night (like many hosts, they live on the property), but they were kind enough us a quick wine tasting anyway. We got there just in time for sunset, and to buy a bottle of the bubbly red Baco Noir.

It was lovely. I’ve never had a fizzy red wine before but I really loved it.

The next morning we attempted to visit Mammoth Caves, but due to my walker (which I still need occasionally), we weren’t able to get a tour. We had a great time driving around the park and surrounding areas.

We also took a few minutes to walk around the Corvette Museum.

Unfortunately, everything we want to visit is either closed due to the pandemic, or they’re totally changed because of it.

The next night, we stayed at another Harvest Host, a distillery in eastern Kentucky.

Again, we arrived just before dark. Since we were headed west and it’s wintertime, there isn’t a lot of sunlight, and we didn’t want to drive too much at night. Plus, most Harvest Hosts want you to get there before it gets dark.

We had a great time at Casey Jones Distillery, learning about the history of Casey Jones and the moonshine business back in the day.

We sampled a variety of moonshines and bourbons, purchased a few bottles for gifts for some friends, and the next morning, we were on our way to southern Illinois.

Dolly parked at Starview Vineyards.

The area around western Kentucky, southern Illinois and Missouri is really beautiful. In our comparatively short time on the road, we have seen some really beautiful landscapes. Southern Illinois also has a lot of cool wineries in the area around the Shawnee National Forest.

When we got to Illinois, we stayed at Starview Vineyards, probably one of our favorite Harvest Hosts stops.

They had a lovely spot to park, a nice restaurant where we could sample some of their wines and have an early dinner, and the view from our table at their pond was spectacular.

From there, we headed towards St. Louis, to see the Gateway Arch National Park and to stay at another Harvest Host outside of the city limits.

The Gateway Arch actually has a really pretty park and pedestrian walkway around it, as well as a museum and gift shop underground.

We parked downtown and walked all around, admiring the artwork and the lovely park…

… then we had a yummy to-go lunch of Korean food.

As I said, pretty much all of our meals were takeout, and enjoyed at our small dining room table in the RV. I painted some of the walls and used wallpaper on others, but the table and benches were pretty much unaltered.

We also enjoyed our stay at the Point Labaddie Brewery just outside of St. Louis. The night we arrived, they had an (outdoor) trivia night, and there were a few other Harvest Hosts RVers we hung out with (socially distanced, of course).

We had a great time drinking local beer around a nice campfire, making new friends and relaxing.

The next morning we kept west towards Kansas City, driving through the Ozarks and enjoying the scenery. One of our new friends at trivia night had recommended Lone Elk County Park, where we could drive around on a one-way road and see the elk during mating season.

We got to see a lot of wildlife, including beautiful birds and, as promised, lots of elk. We got to drive up and observe a pair of young elk fighting each other.

(I apologize for the grainy photo, I zoomed in a lot. I wasn’t about to get too close to wild and randy and violent elk who are antler-fighting each other during mating season.)

The lake communities around the Ozarks are really cute, and the flat land and lakes were a welcome respite after driving through the smoky mountains and the hills of Kentucky.

Nichelina had taken over driving, and I was chilling in the back; which is actually really fun. You get a better view and a more comfortable chair.

We were comfortably on our way to get BBQ in Kansas City – as comfortable as you can be when your vehicle shakes uncontrollably between 35-45 miles per hour – when the engine died.

Sort of.

It would start, so it wasn’t the battery. It happened suddenly with no warning lights so it wasn’t the catalytic converter. And we were able to restart the engine and move it (slowly) to a side street, before it died again.

I should point out that this tiny town of Eldon, Missouri, was the best possible place where we could have broken down. In the 45 minutes we were waiting on the side of the road for AAA to tow us to the repair shop, no fewer than a dozen people, including an EMT on his way to work and an off-duty police officer, stopped to ask us if we were OK, to offer advice and counsel, and to recommend a repair shop. They all said the same one: U Rench it.

It was around sunset when we broke down, so it was fully dark by the time we got a tow truck, they got the RV on the truck, and we got to the shop. They were about to close, but in the dark, the mechanic could tell that the problem was that — no kidding – mice had chewed through the fuel injector wires. It was an easy fix, but they couldn’t do it until the morning.

Curtis (the mechanic) let us park overnight at the secure repair shop lot, staying in our RV, and then first thing in the morning, he replaced the wires. It took about an hour because, in the daylight, he realized the spark plug wires had also been gnawed.

For a grand total of $72, we got back on the road, the RV actually drove better due to the new spark plug wires and fuel injector wires, and he showed us how to turn on our propane tank. It turned out, the fridge actually wasn’t working, it was just cold. (The food stayed cold in there when we were in Tennessee and Kentucky, but then when it warmed up again, so did our food.)

So it was a winning day all around… especially because Curtis also recommended moth balls in the engine to stop more mice and wildlife from gnawing our engine wires; and he directed us to Ha Ha Tonka State Park, a super cool hidden gem of a state park in the Ozarks.

They have an amazing natural rock bridge, which was dry from a drought, so we could actually climb and walk underneath it.

The state park is also home to an old castle built by a Kansas City business man in the early 1900s, and the ruins of the castle and surrounding views are spectacular.

I started to be really glad that we broke down in Missouri.

Finally we made it to Kansas City, where we had some really good BBQ at Jack Stacks BBQ.

Our Harvest Hosts stop for that night was a cider mill in Louisburg, Kansas, but we got there after dark and didn’t see anything until the sun came up.

And it was so cute! Pretty much by the time they opened at 8 a.m, the place was packed. I was still walking around, looking at everything while still in my PJs, and the people at Loiusburg Cider Mill were already making cider.

It was a Saturday morning, and dozens of families and visitors had arrived, already deep in their hot apple cider and cider donuts. I got some donuts, which were amazing, and some delicious fresh cider and apple cider slushie to wash them down.

Our goal was to get to Colorado before dark (or at least before too late), so I could get some Rick Simpson Oil and other CBD extracts before I started a new chemo drug. I have been on hormonal treatments (the tumors in my bones are actually breast cancer cells, so they are shrinking my tumors by cutting off estrogen), but I was starting a new regimen of oral chemotherapy pills, and I wanted to have some proper CBDs in my system so I could be as healthy as possible before I started.

Anyway, it took forever to get though Kansas, but it sure was better than slogging through that last part of west Texas that lasts forever when you’re trying to get west. (Anyone who has traveled that stretch knows what I mean.) We finally arrived in Colorado, found the nearest Wal-Mart, and stopped for the night.

As soon as we got the RSO, we headed south to New Mexico, where we unfortunately had the craziest part of our trip. It was a Harvest Hosts stop in northern New Mexico, a winery (there is a really great wine scene in New Mexico, their wines are all very unique, but more about that later). I will decline to name and tag them in this post, for reasons which will soon become apparent.

We did what we always did; called ahead to let them know we were coming, and our approximate time of arrival. We arrived just after sunset and before it got (really really) dark. Instantly, we knew this was not a normal HH stop. The place was dark and at the end of a dirt road. There were no markings. There was no sign. There were no lights. It didn’t appear to be a business at all. A man (who we later learned was the husband of the woman we spoke to), let us in the main gate, then locked it behind us.

As I mentioned, my RV is 22 feet long, which is very small for an RV. I cannot fathom how a rig bigger than mine would fit there. I started to wonder why these people were listed as a Harvest Host, and why in the world the reviews of this place – which discussed how the building was built in 1920 and used to be a dance hall – didn’t mention that it barely appeared to be a functioning business.

Nichelina commented (correctly) that it looked worse than the Wal-Mart we had slept at the previous night. I got out of the RV, with my mask on, and the lady told me that I didn’t need to wear one, because “everything is sanitary around here, even the dirt is sanitized.” Needless to say, this was not true — the place (and the people) were quite objectively dirty. But we were there, we were locked in. We had told them we were staying, I felt at that point it would have been more awkward to just turn around and leave.

We go inside to see their operation (the site boasts tasting flights and tours of their facility), and discover that this old 1920-era building, which looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since it was a Prohibition-era dance hall, is a (mostly) one-room building. You have to walk through a dirty motorcycle garage to enter. There is no winery or tasting room, and our host informs us that because of some legal snafu with the Catholic Church owning property within a certain distance, they are not allowed to operate it as a winery or as a tasting room. But, of course, they still do, offering wines to Harvest Hosts RVers and people doing wine tours in the area. I have no idea how the New Mexico Board of Tourism backed them without a proper winery, but they did. We got the tour, which included a view of a tiny room with a bunch of TV screens, where we could see ourselves. They had cameras on every inch of the property. It was not like any other Harvest Host we had been to.

But I digress.

We were tasting wine in the tasting room/bedroom, at an antique table within view of our host’s unmade bed and laundry room, when she proceeded to tell us all about the neighborhood; including that she had been sexually assaulted by one of her neighbors. The assault had allegedly taken place in the room where we were sitting, just a couple of months prior, in full view of the many cameras all over the place, but she told us the man was still not in jail. This also did not make us feel better about camping there overnight.

The final crack was when we were headed back to our RV. The hosts had offered to let us use their bathroom (we only use the RV one for emergencies, and we hadn’t yet figured out the water pump), and when we walked through the motorcycle garage you need to walk through to get to the “winery,” we saw Nazi and Confederate flags.

I consider myself a tolerant person. I am liberal politically, but I can accept other points of view. I draw the line at fucking Nazis, though. And I think most people do.

Needless to say, now we really wanted to get the heck out of there.

We again decided that making a break for it now would be too awkward, plus it was dark, the roads were windy and unfamiliar, we were in an RV, and we had both drank the equivalent of about two glasses of wine at our bedside tasting. We decided the best course of action would be to get out of there as soon as possible in the morning, and to let Harvest Hosts and everyone else know to stay away from this place.

The people had been nice to us, but the place was so dirty, and so below standards … and it just made me sick to my stomach to think of a Black or Jewish person coming there as part of Harvest Hosts, or wine tasting for a birthday party, and seeing a Nazi party flag and other racist nonsense so prominently displayed. We notified Harvest Hosts, the NM Board of Tourism, and put a detailed public post on Facebook and Google reviews.

In the two weeks or so since we left that place, they apparently got wind of our posts, because they have now claimed that their dirty garage with the lawn chairs and motorcycle parts and Amazon boxes in it was actually a “military museum,” and those multiple racist icons and flags were just, like, exhibits on display. Makes sense, right? Because that’s how you would display a flag in a museum, draped over some boxes, or hanging up next to where you and your buddies sit around and smoke cigarettes? That’s your priceless artifact, there as an educational tool, next to the bottle of cleanser?

Come on. Look at those photos. This ain’t a museum; and it ain’t a winery. It’s a couple of racist, white trash people who learned how to make homemade wine, trying to pretend they are better than they are.

I believe that these flags were and are a statement. You don’t pick them up accidentally, you don’t display them without knowing what they are, and you don’t display them unless you believe in them. This dump was nothing close to a museum, but even if it was, just for the sake of argument, there is no museum that would display racist icons like this without explanation or context, if at all. A racist flag in a dirty garage is just that.

That’s all I am going to say about it, because they are also claiming they called New Mexico state police, because they say we stole priceless military artifacts from their “military museum,” and they are trying to get their friends to harass me on social media. They even found an old photo from September, of my sister and I, and added it to their sprawling Facebook post, claiming that she and I were the ones who visited, when of course, it was Nichelina and I, and of course we didn’t steal anything. They have the tapes to prove where we were every second we were on their property, so I am not worried about the cops. I know we didn’t steal, and I know we did the right thing by telling people about this place. No regrets.

I will say that I am disappointed in Harvest Hosts for allowing these people back on to their program after removing them, but I suppose they were convinced about the military museum thing. I still have a Google review active, so hopefully visitors will check first before visiting. I am still wary of any people of color coming to visit, but I assume they would have taken down the troublesome flags by now.

UPDATE: OMG YOU WILL NEVER BELIEVE THIS. A week or so after I published this, the online harassment started by (I can now name and tag them) Wicked Kreations continued, and I received a Facebook message from someone I don’t know.

The message contained a link to an article detailing the arrest of Tim Lopez, the co-owner of the “winery,” for murder. He (allegedly) shot someone in the head at a grocery store on Thanksgiving.

Oh.

My.

Gaaah.

And that’s the same guy trying to accuse us of theft!

I am also happy to report that Harvest Hosts has removed these people from their app now. I spoke to them, and they explained that Wicked Kreations was temporarily removed when I showed them the flags, but reinstated when they provided HH with paperwork showing that they were a “military museum.” (You all know my opinion on that.)

Harvest Hosts explained that they had to give these people the benefit of the doubt, which I understand, but now that this has happened, I think they understand what kind of people they’re dealing with here. I really love Harvest Hosts, so I’m very happy it all came out well … except, of course, for that guy at the grocery store on Thanksgiving.

I guess if that’s the worst and craziest thing that happens to us on this trip, we’ll be just fine, right?

New Mexico is stunning, and the landscape is much more varied than you might imagine if you’ve never visited. There are mountains and plains, arid deserts and green valleys. We were at high elevation and it was early November, so it was very sunny, yet cold, and the ground was frozen.

It was beautiful.

As I mentioned before, New Mexico has a great wine scene. They have the usual whites and reds, but because grapes are so hard to grow in New Mexico, local producers often incorporate lots of other fruits and herbs. The unnamed Nazis made some wine from strawberries and others from native chokecherries.

Our next Harvest Host was like we have come to expect: wide-open spaces, lovely vineyards, warm hospitality, no racist flags of any kind.

Wines of the San Juan has an adorable little outdoor seating area as well as a small tasting room and gift shop, plus they offered electric and water hookups, which is really nice when your generator is super loud.

When we arrived at Wines of the San Juan, we noticed a lot of other farms nearby, but apparently a small, local lavender farm produces enough lavender for WSJ to make a delicious lavender wine. It tastes like a slightly fruity white wine, but has a strong lavender scent and taste. It’s wonderful. They also make a sweet cherry pie wine and other blackberry and fruity blends. It was probably the most variety we saw in any of our wine tasting travels on this leg of the trip.

The rest of the trip to San Diego went fairly quickly … we went west on a remote highway that went back and forth a couple of times between Arizona and Utah. It was cold and dry and remote.

It was also spectacularly beautiful.

Part of the drive went through the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which has some of the most beautiful rock formations you’ve ever seen. We had to stop for a few minutes to enjoy the scenery, take some pictures, and let Dego stretch his paws.

Then we spent a couple of nights with friends in Las Vegas (who have been quarantining), and from there straight into southern California. In San Bernardino, we ran into some issues trying to find a free spot to park — no Harvest Hosts were nearby, so we went to a Wal-Mart, only to be kicked out around midnight. Apparently the store parking thing doesn’t work if you’re in a city or county that doesn’t allow overnight parking or camping; which is most of southern California. Eventually we found a cool security guard at a Costco who let us park there for a few hours, but it was technically illegal.

Aaah, but to be back in Ocean Beach. We left the San Bernardino parking lot super early and we were back in Ocean Beach and enjoying the salty air and the warm sun by noon.

#breastcancerportraitproject

We’ve basically been on the beach all week… parking at various friends’ homes at night and sitting at the beach all day.

#breastcancerportraitproject

My stepbrother visited us and showed us cool things about my RV, like how to light the stove, adjust the water pressure, and empty the black tank (I did read the manual on those things, but hadn’t done them yet). But every day on the beach ends with a lovely sunset out the front window.

I am spending Thanksgiving at my brother’s while Nichelina and Dego and Dolly are in San Diego, and we will meet up again this weekend and head back east on Tuesday (after more doctor’s visits and scans on Monday). In the meantime, we feel better about cooking in the RV and emptying the tanks if we need to.

#breastcancerportraitproject

I also had another sitting with my friend Missy, who runs the Breast Cancer Portrait Project. If you haven’t seen it, it’s really an amazing and inspiring body of work, telling the stories and sharing photos of women who were under 40 when they were diagnosed with breast cancer.

#breastcancerportraitproject

I sat for a session with Missy about a year ago, when I was celebrating being a survivor. Now that cancer is back, she offered to come to the beach and photograph me again in my RV.

#breastcancerportraitproject

I strongly recommend that you visit her site and her social media and support this amazing project.

I will update soon with the next leg of the trip. The tentative plan now is to head due east, stopping in Houston and Louisiana on the way back to Tennessee. We will definitely enjoy the scenery and the Harvest Hosts and the food, but Nichelina and I both promised our moms we would be on the east coast by Christmas, so we can’t lag too much.

In the meantime, have a great Thanksgiving week.

If you are enjoying this content, please contribute to my bucket list GoFundMe page here.

Beer Tour for One

The San Diego Brewer’s Guild refers to our beautiful seaside town as the Craft Beer Capital of the World. It’s not much of an exaggeration: in the last decade, especially, laws nationwide have been relaxed to allow more home brewing and distilling; and it wasn’t long before everyone had their own brewing company.

As with many other aspects of life, San Diego spoils you for living other places after you leave. You start to travel after living in San Diego for a couple of decades, and you erroneously expect great sunsets and superb Mexican food and fancy craft IPAs everywhere you go.

It’s a wake-up call.

But hey, part of traveling and seeing the country is trying new things, right? What’s the point of seeing the rest of the country if I am looking for San Diego beer everywhere? So when I got to my mom’s house in Tennessee, I had to take myself on a tasting tour.

Of course, if I was still in San Diego, beer tasting would be totally different: I would buy myself a day pass on the bus, take the bus from my house in Ocean Beach to Old Town, where I would hit a nice brewpub for a starter beer. I’d take the trolley, maybe to downtown San Diego or to the barrio to hit a few tasting rooms, having a small beer or taster in each one, maybe a snack or a taco at one or more of the stops, and make a day out of it.

It’s a fun, spontaneous day, just as easily accomplished with one person or 20. The bus pass means you don’t have to worry about drunk driving or parking.

Well, parking sure isn’t an issue at my mom’s farm in Limestone, Tennessee. They don’t even have a stoplight, much less a bus and trolley system to take me to all of the beer tasting spots. There is a tasting room about 25 miles away, but I’m not drinking and driving. Plus, you know … Covid.

So, I compromised. I went to the local grocery store, where I purchased a mix-n-match 6-pack of beers, and filled my sixer with all local brews. It would be a week-long tasting, at home, but it would be safe and I would get to taste all the good beers in the tri-state area.

I know that I love IPAs, so I figured that was the best place to start. It wasn’t hard to find six beers that seemed to be decent IPAs. Also, I generally prefer beers in a bottle, but in these cases, the cans didn’t take anything away from the hoppy flavor.

First up were two IPAs from Sweetwater Brewing out of Atlanta.

I tried their regular IPA and their 420 Strain IPA.

This one, the G13, is one of several “420 Strain” beers from Sweetwater incorporating a hemp flavor. I like hemp as much as the next guy (hello, cancer patient!) but I personally didn’t care for the hemp flavor in this IPA. Their regular IPA (in the yellow can) is much tastier.

Next, I tried the Long Leaf IPA from Appalachian Mountain Brewery. My mom’s house in east Tennessee is very close to the border of North Carolina, so they get an interesting mix of beers from all over the south and eastern seaboard.

(Adorable rural background courtesy of my mom’s back porch.)

I really enjoyed this beer; very crisp and citrusy but with a great balance of hops flavors. For packing a 7.1% punch, it’s very smooth. Better watch out for that one.

Next up … by the way, I was not drinking all of these beers at once! … was one of my favorites, Yee Haw Brewing. Yee Haw has a really cute tasting room in Johnson City, with outdoor seating, a taco shop — it looked just like a beer tasting room you’d find in San Diego.

They clearly didn’t spend a lot of time and money on their can and logo designs (haha) but their beer was excellent.

Lots of hoppy flavor, hints of citrus, and a smooth finish. I totally bought another 6-pack just of these.

Highland Brewing came highly recommended to me by some beer-loving friends, so I tried two of their unfiltered IPAs. Highland Brewing Company is in Asheville, North Carolina, just a little over an hour’s drive (over the Smoky Mountains) from my mom’s place; you may recall some photos I took of their artsy college district when we visited in August from a previous post. Asheville has an up-and-coming craft beer scene and Highland is the leader of the pack.

Normally unfiltered IPAs aren’t my thing, even if I like the filtered version (example, Ballast Point Sculpins are the best IPAs I’ve ever had, but their unfiltered one is whoooooo very unfiltered, and for me, way too full of all of those hoppy floaty bits you get in some beers).

Both of the Highland IPAs were very crisp and not at all full of floaty bits (perhaps that also was due to it being canned and not, say, from a draft pull). But regardless I enjoyed both of these very much.

Maggie the farm dog completes the composition in the background 🙂

As you may have noticed, that was my six pack. A very successful week of tasting, if you ask me.

I later went to buy another mixer pack, with a couple moreYee Haw beers, a couple more Highland IPAs (I really really like the Mandarina… fruity, but not too citrusy that it ruins the hop flavor) …

… and these two North Carolina brews.

This Triple C Brewing IPA was really refreshing, it’s a light, not-too-hoppy IPA. It’s another one that is so smooth and crisp and almost light, you forget you’re drinking a pretty high-alcohol brew.

The last tri-state area IPA I tried was the Boojum Brewing IPA, which was probably the strongest-tasting of them all.

The “Hop Fiend” name is no joke… it was definitely a blend of all the hoppiest-tasting hops, but it was still very delicious.

If you’ve been following my adventures, you’ll have seen that on my way out of Tennessee, I stopped in Nashville to attempt to find some good food like I used to get when I was in college. I struck out.

Of course, in college, I also drank Boone’s Farm, so I didn’t know where to buy good beer there, either. I stopped at a beer and wine market/tasting room and, without sampling, took the word of the lady behind the counter about the quality of Jackalope Brewing Company IPAs and bought a 6-pack of them.

The Fennario IPA was very light-tasting, especially for being as hop-heavy and high-alcohol as it is. I took them with me as I travelled through Louisiana and Texas, and I they were a big hit. My friend in Louisiana doesn’t care for IPAs normally but loved these.

As I made my way back to Texas on the second leg of my adventure, my brother and I stopped in Utah and Colorado, then Dodge City, before we took a right and headed south to Houston, so I got myself a few cans to see what Texas brews I liked best.

The first IPA I tried there was pretty mild:

The “2 Hopper” from Texas Leaguer was really light and smooth, a good daytime (or baseball game) beer.

The Hop Tongue from Karbach Brewing definitely talked a good game, and was very refreshing. But it might be overselling it’s extreme hoppy-ness.

Saint Arnold beers are very popular in Texas, and I enjoyed this Art Car IPA. Again, I wanted more hops, but I’d definitely drink this one again.

Now, the people at Spindletap know how to squeeze some hops. This Hop Gusher IPA was finally the hop-hop-hoppiness I needed! This was one of the best IPAs I’ve had outside of San Diego.

I also sampled the “Single Hop” IPA from the Martin House Brewing Company.

I did not like this beer. I think there might have been an error in production on this one. Ugh.

Thanks for coming along with me on my beer tour.

Please continue to follow my adventures through the USA — hopefully my RV will be ready and I will be on the road in the next week or so.

I have a pass for all of the national parks, so I think I will be maiking an effort — in the next leg of my adventure especially — to see more of the national parks and the awesome treasures within. On the way back to California from east Tennessee, I can see the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I will pass close to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, past Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, the Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde in Colorado, the Arches and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and maybe even Yosemite when I get back to California.

I probably won’t see all or even most of the places on that list, but I m super excited to get back on the road – this time in a pretty nice RV – and see the rest of this amazing country.

Check back soon (and follow me on social media) to see what I am up to in east Tennessee, the progress I have made on the RV, and my next adventure! See you on the road!

If you are enjoying this content, please contribute to my bucket list GoFundMe page here.

Part 2: The Southwest

I just completed part 2 of the best bucket list road trip ever. I learned a few things about camping in a van, about the quality of fast food, and I (re-)learned how much I love — and just enjoy being around — my family.

First things first, if for some reason you don’t follow me on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter (shame on you!), you probably have not been informed that my last scans, which I had in San Diego, looked really good!

Unfortunately, barring some sort of miracle, I don’t really have a lot to look forward to medically other than hoping the tumors don’t get bigger (hurting my bones more or breaking them) or spread elsewhere (a big concern especially for the lesions on my skull) — but that’s just what happened! All of the tumors either shrunk or stayed the same size, and luckily one of the big ones on my skull they were worried about, shrunk by like, a lot.

So it was the best news I could have hoped for.

After I left San Diego, I went to see my ex-stepdad in San Bernardino for an hour or so, then went on to my brother’s house in Oxnard (just north of Los Angeles).

Brotherhood

To make a very long story very short, my dad was married before he married my mom. I never knew the woman he married, or her son, my half-brother. For some reason, our father was adamant that my sister and I never meet our brother, and we never did … and after my parents divorced, our father showed us his true colors, and we moved on and didn’t think much about his side of the family at all.

A couple of years ago, on Facebook, I searched my half-brother’s name on a whim (his name was literally all I knew about him, after all), and found a guy who I thought was my brother. His name could have changed. But then, I looked at his photo, and let’s just say, I was sure we were related. Over the last two years, I started to get to know him and his wife, and it’s really been amazing. I even have a “new” niece and nephew.

Then, this diagnosis came.

I wasn’t going to get more time to get to enjoy the loving and fun relationship I just found, this extra side of my family I never knew existed. It’s a harsh realization.

But, we’re going to try to make up for that.

The plan was for me to meet up at his house in Oxnard, then drive through the southwest for a few days on our way to Houston to see our other sister. (It is becoming clear to me that I will basically be travelling between Tennessee and San Diego quite a bit, so I am happy to have my sister’s place in Houston as a sort-of-halfway point to rest.) The three of us hadn’t spent any time together at all except for right when I got out of the hospital, and I could barely move, then.

My brother and I changed our plans several times. First, we talked about going to Vegas and the Grand Canyon, then considered both traffic (at the canyon) and Covid-19 (in Vegas). Then, we talked about going to Dodge City, then quickly realized a) we didn’t have time to go that far east before heading to Houston in three days, and b) there is nothing to do in Dodge City. We were also trying to plot our route along where some cool Harvest Hosts places are, but many are closed for either the pandemic or the season.

We finally settled on driving in a general easterly direction, stopping briefly in Vegas for a quick photo shoot, then driving to Zion National Park instead of the Grand Canyon. We also wanted to go through New Mexico and see Roswell, and maybe Carlsbad Canyons. We had a general plan, but not an itinerary.

On the Road Again

My brother insisted on leaving his house at an ungodly hour, so I got to see the sunrise touched with a bit of smog and haze and wildfire smoke while he drove the van.

In Vegas, we took our obligatory sign photo …

… and I gave Trump hotel a little salute on behalf of those of us with pre-existing conditions.

But it was still morning, so we barely spent any time in Vegas. I lost $10 at the slot machines in Circus Circus, I washed my hands about 10 times, and then we were back on the road.

The real breathtaking views — like, it will literally take your breath away — were in Zion National Park.

Photos don’t even do it justice (although I will say, my iPhone 8 was taking some great shots!). Thank goodness for Teddy Roosevelt’s foresight to set aside and protect National Parks, because they are the most amazing places.

Zion has guided tours on a tram, but also a self-guided driving tour with a really cool windy road, which luckily has points where you can stop and take pictures.

It was really an incredible afternoon. We could have spent a week there exploring all of the mountains, trails and little villages nearby.

There was also a super-cool thing that you probably don’t know about if you’ve never been to Zion … but there is a weird hole in one of the mountains that looks man-made but might not be …

After wondering aloud what the heck that could be, my brother and I took the driveable trail that goes through one of the mountain tunnels. It was completed in 1930, so it’s wicked narrow and super dark, and of course has no electricity or infrastructure apart from the actual road and tunnel. It turns out, that hole in the mountain is a way to get light into the tunnel without electricity.

Brilliant.

If you’d like to hear my brother and I discover this in real time, check out this awesome POV video he took while driving through the tunnel . And be sure to follow and check out my brother’s theme park blog, Park Journey.

No More McDonald’s

On our way to Vegas from California, we stopped at McDonald’s somewhere in the desert. Mostly because it was the only place to stop. We were thinking about lunch at a diner near Yermo that apparently has awesome food and cool movie memorabilia, but it was kind of gross and empty when we arrived.

I basically used their ladies’ room, took this photo with a creepy Elvis, and left.

After our cruise through Zion National Park, we were planning to spend the night at a Harvest Hosts spot, a trading post in Navajo country almost at the Four Corners (of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado).

After a very long and very beautiful drive — which was surprisingly diverse, in my opinion (you expect the desert to only look a certain way, but in northern Arizona and New Mexico and southern Utah, you see an amazing variety of rocks, formations, mountains, flora, and even weather) — we came to the trading post, but it was very dark at night and there was no phone reception. It seemed a little too sketchy, so we kept driving to a small town in northwestern New Mexico to get a motel room for the night.

There is no food in the desert.

We arrived almost exactly at 10 p.m., but everything was closed. Everything except– wouldn’t you know it — the McDonald’s. My poor brother drove all around Farmington, New Mexico looking for any kind of food, but eventually went to the McDonald’s because that was all that was available. We ate enough to not be starving anymore, but then we both felt kind of gross.

The next day, it was time for something better.

We weren’t far from Santa Fe, and I had a good friend who has spent a lot of time there. We arrived just in time for lunch, and at her suggestion stopped in the center of town — the Plaza, as they call it.

We were excited for anything that didn’t come in a paper bag and have fries and a drink included. We found the Cowgirl BBQ restaurant, where (appropriately socially distanced) we had some amazing drinks and spicy food.

New Mexico is famous for its chiles, and I ordered their Smoked Chicken Short Stack, which was a stack of blue corn tortillas layered with smoked chicken, then topped with chile sauce.

I got it Christmas style, or red and green together. It was … definitely spicy. The chicken had an amazing smoked flavor and the tortillas were nice and fresh.

We hit the road again, headed to Roswell, then to Carlsbad Caverns. Halfway between the two was another Harvest Hosts stop, this time a winery. When I called them ahead of time to let them know we were coming, they informed us that it was lasagna night, so in addition to a place to camp, we could taste some wine and have a nice dinner. It was like we almost could get over having nothing but fast food the day before.

Roswell is … interesting. I expected that some of the town would be trying to bank on the weird alien landing story, but wow.

The sign for the Dunkin’ Donuts had an alien holding it up.

The gas station had green moonmen waving you in to the car wash.

The street signs look like this:

WE GET IT. THERE ARE ALIENS.

The UFO Museum was very cool, complete with full replicas…

… of the alien autopsy and other parts of the legendary story of the Roswell alien landing.

Honestly, some of it was more than a little creepy.

I will say that the UFO Museum, at least, took social distancing and Covid precautions very seriously. Everyone was masked, there was a machine at the door that took your temperature, and there was a strict 6-feet distancing policy.

I kind of wanted to just get out of there before someone offered me an alien-shaped burger or something. Plus, I had lasagna to eat. We had to get on the road to the Balzano Family Winery so we could have dinner and some wine before it got dark.

Success!

This is a really great Harvest Hosts spot. If you aren’t familiar with Harvest Hosts, it is an RV owners’ program wherein you pay an annual fee, and you can park your rig (or converted cargo van as it were) for free at various locations. Most of them are farms, breweries, distilleries, wineries and attractions, but you can also expand your membership to golf courses.

Anyway, we set up the van (electric hookups are always a plus), then went to their lovely garden area for dinner. It’s not a restaurant, but a winery and gift shop, and apparently they also have dinner nights.

We stumbled luckily upon lasagna night, and we ordered a bottle of the Montepulciano to wash it down.

The pecan pie was also slammin’.

It was very, very nice.

In the morning, we rose with the sun, and took a few photos of the lovely sunrise over the desert.

Then it was on to Carlsbad Caverns. This is where we got really lucky.

For the most part, 2020 was one of the worst times to decide to take a nationwide road trip. Unfortunately, my clock is ticking, so I have to hit the road, pandemic or no. But half of the cool places to visit are closed or irreparably affected.

Others, like Carlsbad Caverns, are better.

We checked the website before we arrived (a MUST when traveling anywhere these days), and it advised to come early, because they often sell out of tickets before 9 a.m.

The visitor center and gift shop is awesome.

They only allow people to visit the cave a few at a time. We got a ticket for one of the first tour groups (8:45 a.m.) and I had my walker with me because my back was hurting.

So, with the combination of our early ticket time and my handicap, we got to take the elevator down to the caverns, which shaved about 45 minutes off of the walk down. Which meant that as we entered the cave, the first group of tourists (from 8 a.m.) were still descending.

We were practically alone. In the caverns.

They tell you to keep your voice to a whisper, because any noise reverberates like crazy. I’ve seen photos and videos of tourists in the caverns, and they’re always super close to each other, and the videos sound like there’s a ton of background noise (probably all of those people whispering to each other).

But this was practically silent.

We didn’t go far (it’s a hike for healthy people and my back wasn’t just up to it), but we saw about half of the public part of the cave, and that was a lot.

The lighting inside makes the rocks look like living creatures or spooky ghouls, and being in there in near-silence doesn’t hurt, either.

After Carlsbad, we headed southeast to see our sister in Houston. If you’ve ever been through west Texas, you’ll know that part of the trip isn’t much to write about other than the fried chicken. The chicken livers at Bush’s Fried Chicken in Pecos were legit.

Check out my next post for the shenanigans we got up to in Houston, and my trip further east to an alpaca farm and my mom’s house. I’ll be at my mom’s for a couple of weeks while I get my RV ready to hit the road!

If you are enjoying this content, please contribute to my bucket list GoFundMe page here.

Saturday at H Mart

This weekend I finally got to check out the newly-opened H Mart on Balboa Avenue (the one on Mira Mesa is still there, but this second one just opened in early June).

The second H Mart is considerably larger than the older store, and boasts a huge food hall with tons of amazing food.

After perusing the baked goods (that are waiting for you as soon as you walk in the entrance), it occurred to me: one must never go grocery shopping while hungry.

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Luckily, there were plenty of options.

First, I tried some kimchi fried rice from Bann Korean Cuisine. The kimchi was delicious but the dish itself was a little TOO packed with green onions for my taste.

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The busiest part of the food hall, by far, was the Myungrang Hot Dog stand, which features delicious sticked hot dogs coated in a tasty rice batter (and in some cases, squid ink, cheeses, or potato), then you have the option to have them rolled in sugar or coated in any one of a variety of yummy sauces.

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And, of course, you can’t go wrong with the hot dog coated in cheese.

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It was quite interesting … I expected them to be crunchy but I wasn’t prepared for the chewiness of the dough. Also the sugar topping was a great addition, despite how it sounds – the sweetness of the sugar balances perfectly with the saltiness of the hot dog.

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After a quick perusal of the grocery part of the store, and picking up a few essentials – sesame oil, Korean pancake mix, Korean BBQ sauce for grilling later (see below) and some ginger candies – I headed across the street to Cross Street Chicken and Beer for some after-shopping sustenance.

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There was a short wait … but it was worth it.

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I tried the soy garlic wings and the spicy corn poppers, plus a nice flight of IPA beers. I usually drink IPAs, but the beers here were specifically selected to complement the chicken and other dishes.

This place is a gem.

I kept the party going when I got home …I smoked some chicken legs and pork belly using that Korean BBQ sauce …

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… and I used smoked meats, that oniony kimchi fried rice, plus homemade sticky rice and savory Korean pancakes, as my meal prep for the week.

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AYCE Sushi FTW

This week I was a guest of the fine people at Onami, an all-you-can-eat Japanese seafood and sushi in the Mission Valley mall. I’ve seen this place a hundred times as I walk past on my way to the movie theater, but this was my first time eating there. And what an amazing meal it was!

Right when you walk in, you’re greeted with friendly service and a huge buffet table covered with salad fixings and every type of sushi roll you can imagine.

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I don’t know about you, but one of my least favorite things about sushi dinners are trying to decide what to order. Every selection means you get 6-10 pieces of whatever roll you choose. But AYCE sushi is the best because you can just grab a bite of whatever you feel like, and you don’t have to commit yourself to an entire roll.

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My favorite was the tuna tempura roll. Super spicy and stuffed with two kinds of tuna!

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Onami also has an amazing selection of hot food, like miso soup, tempura, stuffed mushrooms, teriyaki chicken, sautéed vegetables, and a delicious spicy tofu with eggplant.

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The seafood was also impeccable … try some crawfish, some crab legs, or some icy oysters on the half-shell!

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And don’t forget dessert!

Onami has a full fruit and dessert bar, with traditional Japanese flavors as well as good old American chocolate cake.

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All of this amazing food is also surprisingly reasonably priced … I don’t think I’ve ever spent less than $20-25 for a sushi dinner, and they definitely weren’t customized and all-you-can-eat. This can all be yours for $15.99 for lunch, $22.99 for weekend lunch, and $26.99 for dinner.

Onami is located at 1640 Camino del Rio North, in the Westfield Mission Valley mall.

I am told that Onami will soon be adding a “Lobster Day” special all weekend long. Be sure to check back with Starbright’s Kitchen for updates.

Mardi Gras and ShamROCK

Being a food blogger and influencer is a great gig in San Diego! Almost weekly there are amazing events for foodies, from tasting tours to brewery fairs to block parties.

Coming up on the 16th of March, there will be an amazing ShamROCK St. Patrick’s Day block party in the Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego. Last weekend there was a 20-restaurant food and cocktails tasting tour in the Gaslamp for Mardi Gras. And we even got to preview both parties last Monday!

The preview party was a three-stop tasting party; it started at the Dive, where we sampled banana whiskey and banana whiskey mules …

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.. then we moved on to the Smoking Gun, where we sampled Hurricane cocktails and these AAAHHHHmazing lemon pepper chicken drummettes.

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I think these may be the tastiest chicken legs I have ever had in my life (and that is  BOLD STATEMENT). They are topped with a housemade ranch dressing and a spicy, herby wing sauce.

Unfortunately, on the actual date of the Mardi Gras party, I planned to hit the Smoking Gun last, but they were out of chicken by the time I arrived. It was brutal. Luckily I managed to distract myself with lots of beads and posing for pictures with my friends.

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I told you this was brutal.

The preview party finished up with a fabulous whiskey and green beer-tasting at the Field … who also participated in the Mardi Gras tasting with this spicy and creative (but definitely not gumbo) “Irish Style Gumbo.”

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It wasn’t bad, but it would never fly in NOLA.

I think my favorite food item from the Mardi Gras tasting (since I was denied another chicken leg) was the blueberry and brie waffle from Brian’s 24. It was my first time at Brian’s, and I loved the waffle (not too sweet, and the brie was whipped and blended with the cream cheese) as well as the ’57 Chevy cocktail they were making fresh at the bar.

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Speaking of cocktails, Ambrose whiskey was a major sponsor, so almost all of the establishments participating in the tasting tour offered some sort of cocktail made with Ambrose banana whiskey. I am a huge fan of whiskey and whiskey mules, but I did not care for the banana flavor.

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I understand from the company rep that they hired a chemist or scientist to find out a way to make whiskey taste like bananas, yet only use natural ingredients. I am glad they managed to do this without anything artificial … but, why? You really hired a guy just to find a way to make whiskey taste bad? What did it ever do to you?

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Anyway, I will have to find a way to make a boozy banana shake or bananas foster to use this whiskey.

Obviously, since it was a Mardi Gras themed tasting tour, there was a lot of jambalaya, gumbo, and Cajun-spiced dishes. Among the best were the chicken and andouille sausage jambalaya (with a Hurricane) at Suckerfree:

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… or the Southern shrimp n grits from Tin Roof:

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… or the Cajun mac and cheese from Henry’s Pub:

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… and the chicken and sausage gumbo (and martinis) at the Dive:

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There were also some amazing fish dishes, like the ceviche (and jungle juice cocktail) from the Rockin Baja Lobster:

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… as well as this amazing ceviche de pescado and seco de res (rice dish) from Machu Piccu.

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This is the second time I have been to Machu Piccu for a tasting tour, and it is very tasty. The service is wonderful, too.

Are you psyched for the ShamROCK party yet? I will be giving away a pair of tickets to the greenest party of the year in the next week, so check back soon!